A historic run came to an end Friday night in Kansas City, after the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers fell to the Kansas Jayhawks 64-57.
A 16-seed has still yet to defeat a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament but the Hilltoppers gave it all they could muster together. WKU led at the half, 32-31, behind a strong performance from freshman forward Alex Rostov. Rostov had nine points in the first half keeping the team in the game. Anytime WKU would relinquish the lead to the Jayhawks, Rostov would get it back. At the half the Hilltoppers, looked like it may be their game to lose.
"We put our pants on the same way they do. We came out aggressive the whole time. It's just the ball bounced a different
way for us tonight." said guard Brandon Harris.
The ball did bounce a very different way for WKU in the second half. Forwards George Fant and Alex Rostov each picked up their fourth foul with around ten minuntes left in the game. That opened up the middle for Kansas and in turn, opened up the lead for the Jayhawks. Jamal Crook brought the gam e closer with a driving layup and added free throw after the foul. T.J. Price hit one of his two 3-pointers with just under two minutes left, leaving the Kansas lead at five. That was
as close as the Hilltoppers could cut into the lead of the Jayhawks. More than 20,000 fans packed the Sprint Center
in Kansas City, but it was the fans who traveled from the hill that left one's ears ringing.
"I think we left them (Kansas) knowing exactly who Western Kentucky is." added Harris.
"We didn't come here to do anything other than win. If we got the right draw in the tournament we could make some noise. Personally Kansas wasn't who I was hoping to get in the first round. We got them. I said our guys will go compete and we'll have a chance and that's what happened and that's what we did." said calm and collected Coach Ray Harper.
The team shot a dismal 20 percent from the field in the second half, opposed to their 48 percent in the first. The MVP of the Sun Belt Tournament, T.J. Price was held in check by the Jayhawk defense, scoring 12 points on 3-13 shooting.
Very few expected WKU to even be in the position to lose to the Jayhawks in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The team entered the Sun Belt Tournament with a record of 16-15. Those who followed the team closely knew that injuries killed the potential of the team. That is until the Sun Belt Tournament. T.J. Price, Caden Dickerson, Kevin Kaspar, and Jamal Crook each missed significant time this season due to injuries; never allowing the Hilltopper backcourt to gain the chemistry needed for a title run. Despite the lack of time together, once everyone returned from their injuries, it was time to
Hot Springs for the conference tournament. The group of Hilltopper guards showed the Sun Belt they didn't need time to mesh, they just needed themselves to be healthy on the big stage. It didn't hurt to have big man George Fant establish the Tops in the post early either. From the get go against Louisiana-Monroe in the first round, the Hilltoppers dominated every facet of the game and cruised to a 14-point victory. The next two tournament matchups for the Tops had very similar endings. Each game with less than one minute to go, T.J. Price came up with a game winning steal that subsequently led to a game
winning bucket. The sixth seeded Hilltoppers were where noone expected them, the conference title game. Sopholmores T.J. Price and George Fant led the Tops in scoring all year but Fant struggled in the semi-finals of the Sun Belt. WKU was able to move on despite the struggles of their big man. The final however, was a different story. Fant came to play, scoring 17 points to go along with 13 rebounds and four blocks. His performance along with teammate Brandon Harris, who hit four 3-pointers, allowed the Toppers to advance to the NCAA tournament without needing last minute heroics from Price. In the end, Kansas was too much. WKU only loses senior point guard Jamal Crook, though he certainly is a big loss on the court, and in the locker room. Besides their floor general, WKU returns every player from this year's NCAA tournament team, and that can only mean more madness come next March.